Criterion Prediction #182: The Valley (Obscured by Clouds), by Alexander Miller
Title: The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) aka La Valléė
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Cast: Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Michael Gothard
Synopsis: Vivian (Ogier) leaves her posh life and, with her French consulate husband, goes on a journey with some other European travelers in the New Guinean mountains searching for a remote area that is listed on the map as simply, “obscured by clouds.”
Critique: I’ve had a lifelong love for movies. Prior to taking them more seriously in an academic way, I was more “groovy” guy; instead of discussing directors, and cinema history I was more likely to be found on a beach somewhere, talking about a Phish show, listening to Pink Floyd. So for the longest time The Valley was known as “some French movie Pink Floyd did the soundtrack for.” The album was Obscured by Clouds and, in the liner notes of the disc/record, it said, “Soundtrack for the film La Vallee,” accompanied by some stills from the film. Later on, I experienced a sort of crossover when I realized “that French movie with the Floyd soundtrack” was actually a film by renowned director Schroeder and my incidental courtship with this movie came full circle when I finally watched it.
The Valley is an odd marriage of bland characters, beautiful location photography, ethnographic docudrama and countercultural reflection. It’s not Schroeder’s best and, ironically, most of the time Pink Floyd’s soundtrack feels clunky and shoehorned in.
The story of our listless protagonist Viviane (Ogier) comes off as a bored duplicate from an Antonioni movie but without the enigmatic depth. That’s not to slight her performance but the disaffected petit bourgeois trope is less than compelling and the whole “wealthy white people slumming it with the natives” variant is old. While Viviane is making her trek with her hippie cohorts, we learn quickly that they’re literally just a vehicle to move us through the beautiful and remote landscapes of New Guinea. The characters are second fiddle to the trees, mountains and indigenous people and for good reason because they are terribly bland. Speaking of vehicles, their Jeep is more memorable. They paint pictures on, it gets covered in mud and they take turns in pushing it. In a more tangible essence, it’s more active than the cast. However, The Valley picks up some momentum thanks to Schroeder’s direction and Nestor Almendros’ cinematography. Given Schroeder’s versatility with documentaries and features, he knows how to capture natural material with an underscored sense of style and Almendros’ credentials as a cinematographer speak for themselves. Thankfully, these two work in unison and utilize the locale and its inhabitants to the film’s benefit. They manage to make some non-exploitative and, at times, haunting use of the habitat. The Valley was criticized for being a film that was more fun to make than to watch. There’s some validity to that but the film also imbues that moody, exploratory vibe that feels akin to the work of Herzog or Antonioni. As a whole, The Valley is a flawed film but one that’s teeming with enough atmosphere and rich natural vistas. Pink Floyd’s soundtrack subtly rumbles over the opening credits to significant effect but their music is awkwardly dispersed throughout the rest of the film. It feels like it was a last minute inclusion that was crammed into scenes that don’t really fit. Needless to say, the soundtrack is best enjoyed independently of the feature it was written for. Personally, my experience with The Valley was something of a journey in itself that feels paradoxical seeing as it started with the music which, well over a decade later, I realized, despite making for a solid album, was one of the film’s weaker points.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Janus Films has been touring The Valley, which is always a promising preamble to a film getting a spine number, plus Twitter and rumor forums are sprouting with more and more enthusiasm for a potential release. But more importantly, The Valley was released through HVE entertainment, which is another branch of The Criterion Collection and has been another signal for other movies that they’re in the queue for an upgrade, such as a gaggle of features in the Zatoichi series and Pale Flower.